Is Vegetarianism Healthy?

Vegetarianism is Healthy – Fact, Fad or Fallacy

Our bodies are only as good as the food we eat – a cliché that rings true in an age and time when life threatening diseases strike seemingly healthy people, partly because, they have not been eating healthy. Food that tingles the taste buds, with its taste and flavor is one of the pleasures of life that the best of us succumb to – for only what is pleasantly palatable, will be gladly taken in.
Research costing millions of dollars has created a strong awareness about what foods are healthy, and all the processed foods we savor, are not good at all for our health. Little wonder then, that the list of foods being termed ‘junk foods’ is growing longer, and the ranks of people avoiding all kinds of meat is growing globally. A significant part of this list includes non-vegetarian foods, which are delectable, addictive and damaging.
Non- vegetarian food includes all eating red meat, fish, poultry, and other products derived from animals. This division is a bit hazy, since milk, derived from animals, is considered vegetarian, and forms a significant part of all hard core vegetarian diets.
Over the last two decades, vegetarianism has caught on, and is widely perceived as ‘healthy’, which actually means that it is healthier than a non-vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism refers to a lifestyle, the most significant part of which is following a vegetarian diet that includes plant produce and abstinence of flesh and foods that have an animal source.
Types of vegetarian diets
A diet that includes all plant produce, milk and soy products is loosely classified as a vegetarian diet. Personal preferences, religious beliefs, aversions and convictions have led to the emergence of specific vegetarian diets which include:
• The vegan diet – The most restrictive form of a vegetarian diet includes avoiding all meats and animal products including milk in all forms and eggs. Many vegans do not have honey also. Their diet includes only fruits and vegetables and soy products.
• Lacto-vegetarians – A large section of vegetarians fall in this category, whose diet includes vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts as well as dairy products. They abstain from having meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
• Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – This category of vegetarians excludes meat, poultry, fish but have eggs and dairy products besides vegetarian foods.
• Pesco-vegetarians – these people avoid meats and poultry, but eat fish, eggs, dairy products and vegetables etc.
• Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian diet – this is the most flexible diet since it permits certain types of meats, once or twice a week, supplemented by all vegetarian foods. This makes the diet less limiting and healthier since it provides the benefits of both.
People following each of the above mentioned diets strongly believe in the benefits of the diet they follow. For them it is a lifestyle reinforced by strong beliefs in avoiding cruelty to other living beings who have as much a right to live as human beings-the motto being, live, and let live. Most vegetarians in the US and Canada have been motivated by a desire for self improvement, to lead a longer, healthier life.
Vegetarian food facts
Vegetarianism is viewed mainly in a positive light around the world, and in many countries gets legal and cultural support due to its link to religious beliefs and practices, in countries like India and the UK. The dictates of religion in India, had kept a larger proportion of the country’s population, vegetarian, for centuries. In such countries, being vegetarian is not limiting in any way since ample non meat food options are available due to greater demand for the same.
Most non-vegetarians wrinkle their nose at the prospect of having a vegetarian meal. Beans and leaves are the least appetizing for them and equivalent to not eating at all. Perhaps they do not realize the health and overall benefits of a plant rich diet, and the ill effects of consuming high-fat animal protein and meats.
Some vital facts about vegetarian diets:
• According to the American Heart Association, vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, hypertension and coronary heart disease. This is because their diet is low in saturated fat, high in fiber and easier to digest. Food of plant origin is generally devoid of the ‘bad’ cholesterol.
• They are also at a lower risk of certain types of cancer especially those linked to the digestive system, colo-rectal cancer in particular. This can be attributed to the high level of cancer-protecting phyto-chemicals in vegetarian food.
• Vegetarian diets are a rich source of iron and B-vitamins essential for the body, besides phyto-chemical nutrients that facilitate the functioning of every organ of the body and prevent degenerative diseases.
• Fruits and vegetables contain Vitamins C and E, and cartenoids. All these act as anti-oxidants that protect the body cells from free radicals capable of destroying them.
• The fiber content of whole grains, legumes, beans and fruits improves digestion and prevents diseases like diabetes and other illnesses.
• Vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories since the volume of fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts compared to their equivalent of meat, has a lower calorie count.
• Bacteria and harmful chemicals like pesticides are easier to remove from plant produce than meats.
• Plant based diets are better for the planet as well, according to environmentalists.
• Vegetarians have better overall health and quality of life than non vegetarians.
• According to one of the latest research reports, vegetarians are 12% less likely to die of any cause than non vegetarians.
• Vegetarian meals cause less eating disorders than meat based meals.
Is vegetarianism just a fad?
Vegetarianism has been practiced for far too long to be just a fad, though it cannot be denied that it is becoming increasingly fashionable to be a vegetarian. From the earliest time in history, there have been advocates of vegetarianism who used religious, moral and spiritual arguments to woo the meat eating crowd in an attempt to convert them to a diet including the produce of the earth than live beings walking, swimming or flying. The 19th century, and scientific research started popularizing vegetarian diet as being more healthy but till late in the 20th century, vegetarians were a small sect, surviving on the fringe of society and not part of the main stream, except in countries like India, where religion dictated lifestyles and eating habits.
Like so many new ‘diets’ being touted as the best for weight loss, heart health, fitness etc, vegetarianism has also been tried initially as perhaps a fad, but the feeling of well being it brings, has converted non vegetarians into vegetarians.
It is in keeping with ‘being cool’ and ‘going green’, but with no harm done, it may be the best route to good health. It may be a fad, but will last out longer than any other, and one that is going to spread across borders, even in places where vegetarian options are limited.
The vegetarianism fallacy
Meat lovers and hard core non-vegetarians have long criticized vegetarianism on various counts. And this is not entirely without reason. Since any food devoid of meat qualifies as vegetarian, a section of people feel eating a bowl of French fries, onion rings, fried dumplings, fritters and other oil-rich foods are healthy too. Just keeping meat out a nutrient-empty diet does not make it healthy. It has to have the requisite nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals to qualify as healthy.
It is not entirely true that all vegetarians have lower cholesterol. Vegetarians thriving on heavy fried foods, potatoes and fat rich sweets and savories, are bound to have obesity problems along with cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease. India, with a vast vegetarian population, is a typical example.
Vegetarianism has been defined as lifestyle that involves balance, moderation and a conscious effort to balance daily nutrition with the produce of the earth.
Where vegetarianism falls short
There have been concerns about vegetarian diets providing the entire basket of nutrients needed by the human body. The question is about optimal calcium levels which come from milk, and therefore vegans would lose out unless they take calcium supplements.
Meats are a rich source of protein which vegetarians can get from beans, lentils and nuts. Minerals like iron are found in green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, prunes and nuts. The deficiency of Vitamin B-12 needs to be addressed with supplements by vegans though other vegetarians get this vitamin from milk and eggs.
A good vegetarian diet
A balanced nutritive vegetarian diet should include, whole grains and cereal, beans and lentils, fruits and nuts, rice, wheat and vegetables. Ovo-vegetarians would have the nutritional benefits of eggs, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians gain from the wholesome goodness of milk and milk products like yoghurt, cheese etc. Vegans can substitute milk with soy milk and other soy products and get wholesome, balanced nutrition.
Vegetarianism in Myanmar
It is not difficult being a vegetarian in Myanmar with its rich variety of agricultural produce, including fresh fruits and vegetables, numerous varieties of beans and pulses, soy and dairy products. In fact, most salads and soups in Myanmar cuisine can be adapted to a vegetarian palette and supplemented with stir fries that are completely vegetarian if fish sauce and shrimp paste are avoided. The distinct Indian influence in the country ensures plenty of potato based snacks and curries. Every restaurant has vegetarian options, called “the-taa-lo”. Shaan noodles, tofu curry, vegetable fried rice, dosa, vegetable biryani and vegetable hotpot are some of the safe meal options that are easy to find.

The case for vegetarianism grows stronger with every passing day. Science and the environment all favor this diet path. For those looking for role models find philosophers like Plato and Nietzche, political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Benjamin Franklin, and pop icons like Paul McCartney and Bob Marley, propagating the diets they followed throughout their lives. Turning vegetarian may become a turning point in your lives too.

Carbohydrates and the Battle of the Bulge

The battle of the bulge begins when weighing scales continuously reveal ascending readings, and there is a perennial rightward swing of the needle even as clothes get tighter. The verdict in tests and medical diagnosis is ‘overweight’. The list of reasons for this predicament is long, and the cause – a distinct love for food; and the remedy, difficult and unappealing.

It doesn’t help to be living in an era when being slim and thin is considered aesthetically appealing, and healthier too. Thus begins the search for treatments, therapies and weight loss techniques, which might help in reducing the bulge, painlessly and without intrusive treatments.

Going on a ‘diet’ is the easiest, and there is no dearth of ‘diets’ that promise quick weight loss, and amazing results of a slimmer, thinner you, in a matter of weeks. These dietary plans create a radical shift in consumption patterns and do not necessarily mean cutting intake of food drastically. They all push for a plan to eat right, limiting certain foods, cutting out some and increasing intake of nutritional ones. Thus, there is the Atkins diet, Ketogenic, Paleo, Dukan, Stillman, Hollywood diets and so on. Each tries to incorporate food combinations that have worked well for hundreds in their weight loss endeavors, and an equal number that have found no difference.

The diet battle has, of late been increasingly ending up at the doorstep of carbohydrates, with proponents professing the weight loss impact of a diet that has low or no carbohydrates. The “low carb” diet, as it is popularly called, limits the intake of carbohydrates and prescribes an increased consumption of protein-rich and fatty foods. This helps in reducing the production of insulin in the body and the use of the body’s reserves of fat and protein for energy.

Carbs typically form 40-60% of a normal diet. A diet that has less than 20% calories coming from carbs would be considered low-carb, and supposedly helpful in weight loss.

As in the case of all diets, the weight loss claims are disputed, with the added blame of whether such diets are healthy. While all dieticians concede that there is weight loss in the short term, the long term implications give reason for concern.

Carbs The Well of Energy

In Scientific terms, carbs are a group of organic compounds produced by plants, and include starches, sugars and cellulose. Carbs are the source of energy for the human body. They are converted into glucose by the digestive system. Carbs can be simple, as those found in natural products like milk, vegetables and fruits; or complex, as those found in whole grain cereals, bread and starchy vegetables, with a high fiber content as well.

Carbs provide energy to muscles and prevent protein being used as the energy source. The nervous system gets its fuel from carbs, and lesser amount of carbs can result in dizziness and weakness.  They also facilitate the fat metabolism.

The ample availability of processed foods that are also fattening, have become the preferred source of carbs. However, the best source of energy is the carbs that also provide nutrients like fiber, vitamins and antioxidants-these can be found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Refined grains and added sugars need to be avoided as ‘bad’ carbs.

Optimum Carb intake

The ideal daily intake of carbs varies from person to person depending on his metabolism and lifestyle. However, as the main energy source, carbs must form a bigger percentage of the total intake of food.

The Institute of Medicine in the U.S., recommends at least 130 carbs per day forming 45-65% of the total calorie intake. Variations have to be made depending on occupation and lifestyle, as people with sedentary lifestyles can consume less while athletes need to be on high carb diets.

Carbs and weight connection

The prevalent myth that carbs lead to weight gain, is not correct. It is only the ‘bad’ carbs coming from processed foods and refined grains with a high glycemic index, that cause weight gain, while whole grains and natural foods, fruits and vegetables do not. The non nutritive carbs come from white flour, white rice, refined sugar and highly processed foods that have no nutritive value left in them. It is these that add to the total calorie intake and lead to weight gain.

The spread of obesity as almost an epidemic and disturbing statistics revealing the forecasted population percentages heading towards obesity, has caused panic more due to the risk to health and the ability to lead a normal, disease free life. As dieticians and medical professionals have become more vocal about the need for weight loss, awareness about being overweight has increased tremendously. Most people try to lose weight on their own first, by cutting down on fatty foods and following the latest fad. As of now the low carb diet is a craze.

Low carb diets

The most famous low carb diet is the Atkins diet, developed by a well-known cardiologist Dr. Robert C. Atkins. He limited his patients’ intake of carbohydrates and sugar, so that fat is burned used for energy, to fuel physical activities. This reduces the craving for food and appetite levels also come down.

The popularity of such diets can be attributed to scientific studies indicating that weight gain occurs due to increased intake of carbohydrates. A 2012 study revealed that people who consumed low carb meals, burned 300 calories even while resting! Such effortless burning of calories would be the most envious weight loss program.! These claims have been verified in numerous studies conducted over a period of time, and it is only because the results have been confirmed that the diets continue to be tried and used to shed pounds and become slimmer and healthier.

Various low carb diets are being followed across the globe, all of which typically limit the intake of carbs to less than 20% of the total calorie intake, while increasing the intake of protein and fats. It is easy to limit sugar intakes, but impossible to cut carbs completely out of the human diet, and not advisable either, since they remain the main energy source.

The biggest advantage of flowing such a diet, is that people attempt to cut out refined and processed foods and resort to healthier eating habits. Thus, the ‘bad’ carbs are replaced by wholesome, nourishing foods.

This diet also helps to curb the desire to eat. Wanting to eat less, and decrease in appetite naturally translates in to favorable weight management. Insulin levels come down due to restrictions on carbs. This also helps improve metabolism, and initially all the water weight in the body drops. A decline in weight after this, gives the biggest impetus to continue on the low carb track.

Carbs are not so bad

All carbs are not bad and they are extremely healthy if the processed and refined ones can be avoided. The good carbs with a low glycemic index, coming from whole grains, unrefined foods, legumes, fruits and vegetables, hold the secret to good health, free from diseases and each system in the body working well. Good carbs keep the nervous system healthy and the brain functioning perfectly even in old age, the digestive system gets the much needed fiber, keeping diseases of the digestive tract at bay, muscles and limbs remain active without any sign of weakness, and the skin remain younger looking without wrinkles.

Thus the stigma of weight gain needs to be attached to the craze of eating refined, processed foods, that form the bad carb segment. These have a high glycemic index, low or no nutritive value and also lead to various deficiencies. Additionally, the increase in weight is partly due to the body’s inability to metabolize these carbs and not the carbs themselves. It becomes important then, to find ways of improving the body’s metabolism.

The Ideal Diet

The best diet that will keep deficiencies and disease away while prolonging a healthy life must include the following as part of daily meals:

·       Organic whole grains

·       Fresh fruits and vegetables

·       Beans, pulses, legumes

·       Dairy products like milk, yoghurt, cheese

·       Nuts and seeds

The battle of the bulge will continue for all those who love food and whose intake of calories is more than the calories they burn. It is wrong to blame just carbohydrates for this, when it is a wrong diet, wrong timing, and incorrect lifestyle that need to shoulder the blame. A healthy balanced diet with a balance of carbohydrates (40-45%), proteins and fats (30-35% each) which includes fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, whole grains and unrefined foods, combined with exercise and adequate sleep, can fight the weight battle successfully.




Carbs to avoid

The following broad categories of foods must be kept away:

·       Instant foods and instant grains

·       Refined flour and sugar

·       White rice

·       Processed snacks

·       White potatoes

·       Sweetened fruit juices

·       Baked desserts

·       Fast foods

·       Aerated drinks